Listen to this article
Sir, It may be an advantage for a politician to be a polymath — but never a jack-of-all-trades. In all the thousands of words and hours of television that have been devoted to Boris Johnson’s dramatic intervention in the EU referendum, much too little emphasis has been placed upon his fickle approach to public service.
Mr Johnson has always taken the view that the more jobs you have, the better. For a journalist — as he was before he entered politics as MP for Henley in 2001 — moonlighting is no doubt a matter between the reporter and his editor. But public life is different. It requires focus, commitment and prioritisation.
Mr Johnson has kept up his lucrative column-writing — indeed, he explained his decision to support Brexit in his weekly article in the Daily Telegraph. He churns out books, most recently a biography of Churchill that sold well but was academically flimsy. While he prepares for the referendum on June 23, he is meant to be writing a book about Shakespeare.
Most grotesque, however, is the fact that, since last May, he has been both Mayor of London and MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Both roles are, by definition, full-time jobs — or ought to be. The first involves management of a £17bn budget and daily decisions on policing, transport, housing, planning and other policy areas that affect the lives of millions of Londoners.
The second is a radically different position, whereby Mr Johnson is notionally responsible for a specific constituency and represents in the Commons the 71,950 voters within its boundaries. It is outrageous that he treats the public trust so nonchalantly, accumulating jobs like scouting badges.
That nonchalance may well explain his mediocre record as mayor. Easily distracted as he is, he has concentrated only when his own interests were at stake — his re-election to City Hall in 2012 and his obsessive encouragement of cycling — but failed conspicuously to develop a satisfactory strategy for housing, transport, and clean air.
Now he invites us to follow his lead on Europe and to take seriously his contention that “all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No”.
Mr Johnson’s mystifying and illogical argument seems to be that our European partners will wake up and give us precisely what we want only if we storm out of the EU. This betrays a limited understanding both of history and of basic group psychology. If you want better terms of membership, you have to stay in the club.
David Cameron has done a much better job than most newspapers acknowledge in establishing a new basis for Britain’s role in the EU. Yes, the reforms require treaty changes in some cases. But that was always so, and would be the case even if we were negotiating with the EU from outside.
There has been a hysterical, self-absorbed quality to much of the debate on the referendum in the past few days. Most politicians in our era think tactically, planning no further than the next election and often focusing upon even shorter cycles.
What has been lost is the long-term view, what used to be called la longue durée. Before we move forward, we should recall the origins of the union, its historical basis as both a Common Market and a structure to help prevent future conflict in Europe.
Mr Johnson’s intervention encapsulates today’s topsy-turvy values. He has subordinated the future of Britain in the EU to his own self-interest and career plans. What is needed instead is a statesman with the patience to work with the other 27 EU member states to build on Mr Cameron’s work and develop Britain’s role in the EU — for this and for subsequent generations.
Needless to say, Mr Johnson is not the man for the task. But then a politician who cannot even focus upon a single job can scarcely be expected to think clearly about the destiny of a continent.
Evelyn de Rothschild